IRSD School Board candidates talk issues


It’s election time in the Indian River School District (IRSD), and residents will have a chance to cast ballots in favor of either School Board incumbents (Dr. Donald Hattier, DC, Nina Lou Bunting), or their challengers, (Lloyd Elling, Wilbert “Wil” Laird) in Districts 4 and 3.

The polls will open on May 10, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. District 4 voters can cast ballots at Indian River High School or Lord Baltimore Elementary. District 3 voters can cast ballots at Indian River High, Sussex Central Middle School or Long Neck Elementary.

In preparation for the big day, the Coastal Point has polled the candidates on some of the issues. Here follows their responses, listed alphabetically by the candidates’ last name — District 4, then District 3.

Perhaps the most important issue this election cycle regards the School Board’s budget shortfalls associated with its biggest year ever in capital improvements (two state-of-the-art new high schools, and renovations elsewhere).

Q. On a percentage scale, how much responsibility does (1) the School Board and (2) state/federal government bear for the recent budget crunch?

Elling

According to Elling, the School Board is at least 50 percent responsible, with state/federal government taking up the remainder.

“I am a firm believer in personal responsibility,” he said. “I was dismayed at the last IRSD School Board meeting. The members of the board blamed one funding source after another for the District’s financial trauma.”

As Elling noted, some of those comments were true, but he added, “Never did they say, ‘We, the members of the board and district administration, have made errors in planning, supervision and implementation.’ Where does the ‘buck’ stop with this group of nine, plus the superintendent, who appear to be communicating as one?”

He suggested the School Board had been less than forthcoming with the facts, and also spoke in support of the recently “reduced in force” behavior management team members and peer mediation facilitators.

“If they truly valued their services, they should have stated, ‘We are going to do everything possible to keep this program and services well into the future,’” Elling said. “School safety is paramount in our educational system.”

He praised those employees for making the schools safer, and said it would be foolish to take those results as an indicator that their job was completed and they were no longer needed.

Hattier

Hattier gave a qualified 25 percent to the School Board, and 75 percent to federal/state government, inflation, weather and other factors beyond the board’s control.

He said he objected to the premise of the question, and gave some background on issues that may have contributed to the budget crunch.

Regarding upcoming renovations, he said the bid packets probably came in over-budget due to inflation, but the board had to delay construction, because the high schools weren’t finished on time (themselves delayed by over-the-top bids).

“When we did get the money for the remaining renovations, who knew that the building costs would rise at 10 percent per year as opposed to 3 to 5 percent in previous years,” Hattier asked.

“Yes, we as the board had responsibility for the people we picked to do the estimating,” he said. “However, as a board, our job was to pick the most experienced people to get us the numbers, which we thought we had done.”

Then, the state never fully funded per-square-foot construction costs, which caused the district to petition at referendum for less money than needed to complete the projects, he said.

“The state has not raised the amount of money needed for new construction for five years, which flies in the face of reality,” Hattier stated. He also noted SB 59, which sends state funding to schools that come up short — but at present, no Sussex County schools have made the list.

Also, the federal government approved one location for the new Indian River High School, but then forced the project from “‘wetlands’ to a ‘dry spot’ that wasn’t, and increased the cost by some $750 thousand,” according to Hattier.

And finally, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) decided Armory Road (Route 20) was inadequate, and although the district fought them down from major interchange work at Route 26, advanced turn lane improvements tacked on another quarter million or so, he said.

Considering these factors with others too numerous to delineate, Hattier said he wasn’t sure he could give a precise answer as to who should bear what portion of the responsibility for the budget crunch.

Bunting

“The School Board bears zero responsibility, she said. “These are situations we couldn’t have predicted without a crystal ball.”

According to Bunting, they had contingency funds set aside in case construction cost more than expected, but there was no way they could have prepared for the failure of a major contractor — and then the bonding company declining to back that company up.

“That was our first and number one problem,” she said. “So, 50 percent was beyond our control — and the other 50 percent goes to our governor and the federal government.

Bunting noted the diminishing state contributions via equalization, because the district is becoming wealthier.

“It’s not our fault that people are building $1 million-plus homes on the beach,” she said. “The children who are going to our schools don’t live in those houses.”

Nevertheless, Bunting said those homes were redirecting the district’s money to the west side of the county. She also noted the governor’s “give-back” (funding returned to balance the state budget), which has impacted the district in recent years, and an anticipated similar impact on energy funding.

“Our budget is kind of what’s handed to us,” Bunting said. She voiced confidence in district Finance Director Patrick Miller and members of the finance committee.

Laird

School Board members are 100 percent responsible, according to Laird — they approved the expenditures that exceeded the available resources.

He blamed the budget problems on a lack of adequate planning.

“It is a fact that unusual events happen,” he said. “However, you need not know what the specific event may be to know that it is better to be proactive — by having an alternative action — rather than to be a victim of the circumstance.”

Laird noted state and federal funding for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) programs, and Title I funding in some cases — but Title I or not, every school had to be accountable, and show yearly progress.

He said the U.S. Department of Education had traditionally helped out with those assessments, but Congress and the administration presently agreed those levels assistance needed to be adjusted.

“The current nationwide reduction in federal funds for NCLB is an indirect result of the mounting national debt, federal spending priority shifts and federal tax cuts, all issues decided by the most recent national election,” Laird stated. “This is not something that should be a surprise to anyone.”

Likewise, regarding Title I eligibility, Laird said the recent and rapid influx of (financially secure) retirees was a “clear and evident fact.

“The IRSD is in a unique position to take the advantage of change and prosperity, but only if we recognize the opportunity that is offered to us,” he said. If the School Board denied responsibility, he suggested they had given over control and decision-making to others.

Q. Do you consider current policy appropriate, regarding religion in the school district, and specifically, before School Board meetings?

Elling

Elling said he did not think School Board meetings should be opened in prayer.

“It is my role, as a parent, to choose religious education for my children,” he said.

According to Elling, there were other options in the private schools, but for their part, he and his wife had chosen the public schools for their daughter, and he praised the value in that system.

He said there was still a religious influence in the public schools, citing the free and reduced lunch program as an example. “All programs that meet the needs of people who can’t meet their own needs are religious in nature,” Elling said. “It’s not absent, it’s just that we can’t present a specific doctrine to our children.”

Hattier

“The policy we’re currently using is one that has been endorsed by the state,” he said. “We’re doing what we have to do — if I had my druthers, I’d probably do things a little differently.”

Hattier noted the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh V. Chambers (1983), when Chief Justice Warren Burger stated, “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

According to Hattier, “The day after they (members of the Constitutional Congress) passed the First Amendment (1789), they hired two professional chaplains – in my opinion, if they had room to do that, we (School Board members) should be able to do what we are doing.”

Bunting

“The community has shown support for us to continue doing what we’re doing, and I’m going to do what the community wants me to do,” Bunting said.

“We’ve complied with state law, and now, our policy backs that up,” she explained. “There’s no longer school prayer at graduation ceremonies. There’s no longer blessing of food at banquets.

“As far as the prayer before School Board meetings, that’s not involved in that law — it’s not occurring with children in a school setting,” Bunting said.

She said switching to a generic prayer wasn’t really a solution, either. “As a Christian, I respect other people’s religions,” she said. “But for Christians, it’s the Trinity. It’s one — we can’t deny God’s son.”

Laird

According to Laird, prayer at School Board meetings is coercive at present.

“The only thing wrong is that they’re using Scripture as the sole source, rather than in context with other sources,” he said.

Laird said Scripture contained many beautiful, poignant passages about how people deal with one another in relationships, and quoting Scripture was therefore entirely appropriate — but only if the School Board mixed it up with quotes from other religious texts, and philosophical writers like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and Thomas Hobbs, etc.

Elsewhere around the public school system, Laird said religious instruction wasn’t required from public school teachers, and therefore they weren’t necessarily trained to provide it.

“Do parents really want their children to receive religious teachings from someone who isn’t necessarily qualified,” he asked.

Q. Do you feel the Delaware State Testing Program (DSTP) is effective?

Elling

“Figuring out which kids can take these tests and be successful with them is really an important focus,” he said. “Some kids can take these tests, and some kids are going to struggle with them, always.

Elling credited the IRSD’s recent successes in state testing, but said he was worried teachers had become too focused on test preparation, rather than on educating students.

“I’m not bothered by being held accountable as educators and administrators, to having our students reach specific levels,” he said. He recognized the justice of awarding bonuses to Teachers of the Year for outstanding service. On the other hand, Elling said teachers who couldn’t function well should be retrained, and if they still couldn’t function well, moved into alternate career paths.

He also credited the district for moving staff toward master’s degrees, and reiterated his support for that policy.

“It is such a difficult bridge to control spending and get the finest educators you can get,” he said. “However, I do want teachers to not only be paid the best — I want them to be seen as the best.”

Hattier

“We’ve seen a strong emphasis on reading skills, and we’re bringing kids up to those levels,” he said. He noted some “wonderful initiatives,” like Darlene St. Peter’s “Read 180.”

Everything gears to the DSTP,” he said. As Hattier pointed out, if a school continued to produce sub-par test scores over a long period, state funding would fall into jeopardy — “but education is something you do for your own sake,” he stated.

Bunting

She noted great improvements, especially at the middle schools.

According to Bunting, the present School Board members all have their various areas of expertise, and contribute to the various committees (policy, building & grounds, finance) — and in her case, curriculum.

“A lot of states just don’t want to lose local input,” she said, expressing some distaste for an imposed curriculum. Bunting said the district had in fact aligned its curriculum with the DSTP, but she said she was able to provide some input at the state level.

She’s on the Delaware School Board Association executive committee (monthly meetings) and as a lifelong Delawarean and former Teacher of the Year, she said she had quite a few contacts at the state. “Knowing everyone on a first-name basis helps,” she said. Bunting noted an atmosphere of friendly cooperation, give-and-take, and when she returned to the School Board, her ability to advise colleagues.

She also noted her role as chair of the middle school taskforce, which works with teachers and the community to improve test scores.

Laird

“It’s all keyed on achievement, and it’s all keyed on accountability,” he said. “The whole reasoning behind the testing standards is to not overtly evaluate the effectiveness of the students taking the test, but to evaluate the delivery of the service to the student.

“Testing, as a rule, is designed to identify areas that need more work,” Laird continued. “However, testing has become evaluation of a particular student, which is unfortunate.

“It’s not the testing mechanism that needs to be criticized — what needs to be criticized is how one uses that test,” he said.

Laird said the state testing was being used to block students into groups, but individuals learned at different paces — and some accepted certain information, others didn’t.

He said testing shouldn’t focus on what was being accepted, but on how effectively educators were leading students to a clear understanding of the material.

Q. What’s your opinion on full-day kindergarten?

Elling

“I’m in favor of all-day kindergarten, but we don’t have enough classrooms,” Elling said. “So, it calls for changes in where we place our kindergarten schools. It’s a problem, but to do all-day kindergarten, to get our kids progressing as soon as possible, is crucial.

“The truth is, those of us who have the means can get our kids into preschool programs — we can pay for that kind of service,” Elling added. He applauded the Head Start program, and suggested full-day kindergarten could further bridge the gap.

Hattier

“All-day kindergarten has its place, but it should be up to the parents to choose,” he said. Hattier recommended offering both half- and full-day simultaneously.

“So many kids — they come from good, well-meaning families, but they don’t get books at home, and when they come into the first grade from half-day kindergarten, they’re behind,” he said.

He suggested full-day kindergarteners might in on equal footing with children who attend for a half day, but have more academic support at home.

However, Hattier also said the governor’s office had not offered adequate funding for extra classrooms, teachers, drivers and bus routes, energy costs and custodians.

“If the state is willing to fund all that, I say go for it,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll just have to work it in as best we can.”

Bunting

She objected to what she suspected might become “another unfunded state mandate.”

“In principle, I think it’s a great idea, but only if it’s not mandatory,” Bunting added. “I feel parents need to be able to make that decision for themselves.

Bunting said such a program would be especially beneficial for children who are just starting to learn English skills. However, some families might be able to provide valuable learning experiences for their children outside the formal kindergarten setting, she said.

Laird

“It’s a marketing issue, and it has to be looked at from the terms of — what’s the market for that kind of activity,” he said. “The market, basically, is those individuals who are looking at some alternatives to the daycare, and they want to place their child in an environment that is an enhancement, rather than a warehouse.

Laird admitted it might sound callous, but a service like full-day kindergarten had to have an economic following.

Q. Do you feel art, music and/or drama programs should receive more support?

Elling

“None of the extracurricular activities should be subordinated to another,” he said. “They all have equal footing, based on equal needs.

“Whether it’s on the athletic field, whether it’s in auto shop, whether it’s dance, music or fine arts.

Hattier

He said state testing had pushed many art programs aside — but music, arts and chorus programs fostered self-motivation, and the kind of concentration that tended to improve math scores.

However, he noted difficulties associated with (1) finding qualified personnel and (2) finding the funding resources for expanded music and arts programs.

Nevertheless, Hattier said he’d seen “huge improvement” over the past three years, and pointed to Indian River’s high level of representation on the All-State band and chorus rolls. “We have the numbers (students with interest) and we have the talent,” he said.

According to Hattier, these programs, like athletics, help keep many students interested in school — students who might otherwise leave before graduating.

Bunting

She said those decisions should be left up to the principals at each school. State funding based on unit count had a somewhat limiting effect on whether individual principals would opt for arts, music or drama — or something else, according to Bunting.

Regarding both athletics and humanities, she said the DSTP brought a lot of pressure to bear on everything other than academics – and had a tendency to treat all students as if they were college-bound.

“I want to see the children have exactly what they need, and that’s not always the same thing,” she said. Some didn’t want to go to college, some didn’t have the money, some didn’t have the academic ability, she said — and that was okay.

“Everyone has their job to do, and no one who is employed should feel like a failure.” Bunting said. “We need everyone’s expertise.”

Being good at what they did was what made people feel good about themselves, she said — not being forced down a path that might not fit.

Bunting said teaching the basics — math, English, science and social studies — had to take top priority. However, sports and humanities made school more interesting and palatable for certain students, and made for a more well-rounded educational experience, she said.

Laird

“School means more than just simply training the students,” he said. According to Laird, athletics tended to foster a community spirit, bringing people together and making them feel a part of something beyond the individual.

“I’d like to see the arts program meet that part of the community that isn’t terribly interested in the sports,” he said. “That would give the students who aren’t athletically inclined an opportunity to make that same kind of contribution to their community.”

He recommended looking at other districts, nearby Cape Henlopen for instance, to see what others are doing.

Laird commended both athletics and humanities programs for developing that spirit of community involvement — not to mention the work ethic that any focused activity tended to encourage.